"Cheap" is relative. With cheap eats lists coming at you from every other magazine and website, I find myself scouring them and wondering how these writing staffs determine what exactly "cheap" means to them. Nothing got me thinking about this more than my recent trip to Province Chinese Canteen in Tribeca. Just meters from Chinatown, this eatery serves up sandwiches stuffed into small fluffy mantou. With fillings like short rib & kimchee, it was hard to resist a trip. Yet, with its close proximity to Chinatown, the mecca of truly cheap eats, I couldn't help but wonder why I was paying $4.25 for a sandwich as small as my palm.
I first heard about Province from the the 2007 New York Magazine Cheap Eats List. They described the joint as "so bare-bones, you'll walk by thinking it's still under construction," evoking the images of countless Chinatown hole-in-the-walls—cramped, a bit dingy, one tiny fan pushing around the greasy hot air. To me, a description like that is a very good indicator of some great, authentic, steamed Chinese buns.
Perhaps I should have taken a closer look at the menu for a better indication. If I did, I would have noticed that along with the braised and spicy pork fillings, Province carried some items that could be deemed out of the ordinary for a cheap Chinatown find: Angus beef burger, beet salad with a green tea vinaigrette, and the clinchers—GuS soda and Pellegrino.
When I walked in, the "bare-bones" decor was actually a chic pared-down design, with trendy Momofuku'ish sleek wood-panels. I decided to go with the 3-sandwich combo for $11.25, saving me a few quarters off the Ala carte price. On my way home on the subway, I attempted to eat my complementary bag of slightly stale prawn crackers as discreetly as possible and hoped that shelling out almost twelve bucks for three buns would be worth it. When I got home and tried them, I realized it wasn't.
Sure they were cute enough with their American hamburger sesame seed tops, but my first reaction was to gawk at their small size. However I was ready to put my judgements aside by remembering how big a punch those seemingly small Caracas arepas carried. The braised pork shoulder fared better than the spicy pork and short rib varieties, yet only because the extra fattiness and hoisin sauce did a slightly better job of adding some moisture to the otherwise dry, lackluster mantou.
I wondered about the chili mackerel mantou, which was featured in a New York Times article this spring, but from what I've seen from their basics, I don't have much hope. The article quotes the owner describing the sandwiches as "very New York because they are not Chinese, not Korean, but all kinds of things we like." What does "very New York" really mean? Fusion cuisine or just overpriced and slightly trendy? Maybe it was my fault for coming into Province thinking I was going to get a lot more Chinatown and a little less Tribeca in my mantou.
Where the sandwiches did succeed was in reminding me of other overpriced but delicious buns I've had that attracted me to Province in the first place. Topping that list may be the steamed buns filled with decadent pork belly at Momofuku Sam Bar. Priced at $9 for two, it's expensive compared to the buns you can pick up in Chinatown for pennies, but at least that extra money shows up in the food. So, for a dollar more than Province, Momofuku buns are a world away and a much better deal.